Monday, 5 May 2008

China Graduates

My recent posts on Hong Kong and China were really only pond-skipping a few impressions of changes in the last 10 years. In more reflective mode, I am struck by how little Hong Kong has changed since reunification in 1997. It's still pig ugly above the ground floor glitz and is a tiring, heaving mass of people, tourists, delivery guys, self-appointed recyclers, copy-watch vendors, tailors and potholes. Cellular antennas crudely bolted to building tops point their signals directly down into the tight, old streets or, when mounted at street level, point up at 45deg into the glass skyscrapers. The new airport is a vast improvement over the old Kai Tak "strip of fear" and the AsiaWorld Expo next door is even better than the visually awkward, downtown Convention Centre. They still do a mean Double Skin Milk desert, almost as good as the Guangdong shops. HK is more exciting than Singapore, but also more tiring, ruder, dirtier and the weather (i.e. pollution) is astonishing.

China, on the other hand, feels like it has come of age. So many things have improved and developed it's hard to relate. If you want, you can talk about the quaint anachronisms that persist such as the office worker eating lunch from the obligatory oval lunch box (rice, green veg & a couple of strips of pork) while sat on the Ronald bench outside McDonalds; there are kids in punky hairdos jaywalking across roads openly ignoring the traffic cop and his hi-viz flag. People still fly kites over the river but now they're plastic sports models, not traditional square bamboo & rice paper. Poor people scratch out a living, collecting cardboard and scrap metal at the base of Executive Condos.

But these are old images with new twists and the juxtaposition of traditional and Western is no longer even news. When I first visited in 1991, China was badly under capitalised and with a vast labour pool, really would employ 6 women with scissors to cut a lawn (I have the picture). There were spittoons everywhere, public buses needed to be pushed up hills and all cars were Government vehicles. But there was a collective hunger for better times which has blossomed into the current national pride, so much pride in fact that the sense of hurt over the disrupted Olympic Torch tour is in danger of escalating out of Beijing's comfort zone.

As a footnote, much as I enjoyed the retrospective tour (despite 3 days of wicked gastroenteritis) I am glad to be back in Singapore. It's home, it's safe and the sun is shining but modern China left a deep impression on me. China has embraced capitalism and nationalism to become a self-sufficient and bold world player. Learn Mandarin, go East.

Two great takeaway ideas from the trip: the electric scooters in NingBo and the stencil of a house fly on the urinals at Singapore's Changi airport; it just invites you to take aim and thus ensures as splash free a visit as possible. Both are winning ideas.